Kevin Cuthbert was the spotkick hero in Dingwall, saving two efforts in a topsy-turvy penalty shoot-out, as Raith Rovers deservedly took a bonus point back to Kirkcaldy in the latest match of their Betfred League Cup campaign.
In truth, if it hadn’t been for the introduction of penalty kicks to drawn matches in the revamped competition, then the Rovers custodian’s involvement would have been minimal, as this was no plucky underdog, backs-against-the-wall performance from the visitors.
Raith controlled the game for large spells, both before, and especially after Ross County full-back, Erik Cikos managed to knock the ball past his own goalkeeper, following impressive work down the right from Lewis Vaughan and latest signing, Declan McManus.
Jim McIntyre’s Premiership side were heavy favourites going into the match, but shorn of their talismanic midfielder, Jackson Irvine, who recently joined English Championship side, Burton Albion, County looked subdued and one-paced.
Only the introduction of former Raith player, Brian Graham, with 20 minutes remaining seemed to shake a little life into the home team, but even then, it took a somewhat soft looking penalty for the Staggies to restore parity.
Graham went down in the box after jostling with Jason Thomson and debutant, Jean-Yves M’Voto, and while the contact looked minimal, referee John McKendrick felt it warranted punishment.
Graham took the kick the himself, calmly slotting the ball to Cuthbert’s right with the ‘keeper electing to head left.
The striker made the whole process seem relatively straightforward, but a trio of his colleagues failed to do likewise in a shootout which looked to have slipped from Raith’s grasp, but for a late plot-twist which gave Rovers the additional point.
Kyle Benedictus and Mark Stewart made no mistake from 12 yards, but after Ross Callachan saw his effort repelled by Scott Fox, and Thomson struck the post, former Scotland international, Jay McEveley had the chance to win it, after his teammate, Michael Gardyne had despairingly watched his attempt blocked by Cuthbert.
However, Rovers number one repeated the feat, blocking McEveley’s drive to his left, and after Kevin McHattie nudged Raith infront in sudden death, Ian McShane followed up with the worst kick of the 12, crashing his kick into the advertising hoardings at the side of his intended target.
It was an outcome which Rovers thoroughly merited, and while Gary Locke was pleased with the result, he was even more enamoured with the way his charges played.
“The bonus point puts us in a great position, and I’m really happy with how the 90 minutes went,” he said. “We were playing against top class opposition, and to perform as well as we did and match them all over the pitch, I’m delighted.
“I feel we’ve improved as preseason has went on, and today we really looked at our best.”
The Rovers boss had paired together two new partnerships at the top and tail of the park with Lewis Vaughan dove-tailing Declan McManus, while Jean-Yves M’Voto was handed his first start alongside Kyle Benedictus.
Despite their unfamiliarity, both duos looked comfortable, something which Locke alluded to afterwards,
“I thought big Jean and Benedictus did very well today, in what was a huge test for them,” he added. “Liam Boyce and Craig Curran are an excellent Premiership strike-force, but they handled them well.
“At the other end, Declan linked up really well with Lewis up-front, and with Rudi Skacel, Mark Stewart and Yaw Osei in the squad, we’ve got good options up front now.”
The depth of this Rovers side was apparent on Saturday, with a strong-looking substitutes bench, despite Skacel, Craig Barr, Scott Robertson and Joel Coustrain all being absent.
Understandably, Locke is satisfied with the players at his disposal.
“We’re pleased with how the squad is shaping up, and I think it’s important we’ve got competition for places,” he said. “Both myself and Darren were disappointed with some of the chances we created against Montrose and failed to take.
“We’ve now added two players who we feel can add goals though, and if we get that, and defend well, then hopefully we can have a good season.”
If Saturday’s match was any kind of yard-stick, then Rovers probably will.
It wasn’t just the defenders and forwards who impressed though, as Iain Davidson and Ross Callachan produced a domineering performance against their direct opponents, Martin Woods and Ian McShane.
So much so infact, that Woods was replaced at half-time by his frustrated manager.
Bobby Barr impressed once more down Rovers left, handing rightback Eric Cikos a torrid game in the process.
Considering Cikos’ unfortunate intervention gave Rovers an early lead, the twice-capped Slovakian international won’t look back on the afternoon with any particular fondness.
Going forward, Barr was ably assisted on the opposite flank by Ross Matthews, who had been moved out wide to accommodate Davidson, while fullbacks, Thomson and McHattie both pushed up to good effect.
The majority of Rovers best moments were created by Vaughan and McManus however, with the on-loan Fleetwood Town striker bringing out two saves in quick succession from an onrushing Scott Fox, after he was put through on both occasions by defence-piercing passes from his partner.
On the evidence of Saturday, the pacey ex-Morton striker looks a shrewd addition, and he almost made it 2-0 in the second period, when he turned sharply inside the area after gathering possession from a corner kick, but his shot lacked the finesse of his pirouette, as it nestled into the side-netting.
In contrast, the home side failed to draw a shot on target until Graham’s 76th minute leveler. Craig Curran thumped a shot over the bar from 12 yards while the scoreline was still blank, and Richard Foster missed a fine opportunity to equalise in the first half, placing a header wide of the post after a wonderful cross from Michael Gardyne.
Rovers did have a let-off ten minutes into the second period, when Gardyne appeared to be pulled back by M’Voto inside the area. Indeed, it appeared a more clear-cut penalty decision than the one Ross County were awarded 20 minutes later, which may have played a part in McKendrick’s decision to award the rather more debateable shout.
Undaunted by that setback, Rovers failed to yield as the home side pushed for a winner, and Davidson almost won it for Raith in the closing stages, with a rasping 30-yard effort that just dipped over Fox’s crossbar.
The bonus point leaves Rovers in a strong position going into next weekend’s final fixture against Alloa Athletic, with a win guaranteeing top spot in the group, and automatic passage to the last 16.
No-one’s getting carried away, but the early season signs are certainly encouraging.